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Rehearsing Wisely

Charles Groeling | November 2009


    After decades of judging high school contests and teaching clinics, I have to conclude that a great many ensembles spend much of the rehearsal time learning pieces by rote and too little time studying the elements and principles of good musicianship. It is probable that some directors never ask students to play alone, try something different, or make a decision about adding dynamics or adjusting their tuning. It isn’t that these students don’t want to, they just don’t know how.
    While listening to some groups, I know that all the director did was pound the parts, with most of the work done at a menial level. Rhythms were merely hacked out and students never learned the relationship of their parts to the entire score.
    I believe that students at any level should practice scales because they have a cognitive component that involves learning a complex variety of skills. It isn’t enough for students to just play scales by rote. I am now teaching a piano preparatory program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and know that even first graders can find whole and half steps on the piano, name the notes they play, then sing and notate them. By saying a note name and then play it, they imprint this on their memories. Next they combine the whole steps and half steps into three, five, and eight-tone major and minor scales.
    In many band programs I’ve observed, the directors omit the cognitive component all together and let students rely exclusively on muscle memory to finger note after note in a scale. Some students will knock you out playing them so fast, but they usually know only which notes to play next.
    Band programs often introduce scales in last half of the first year. If a student progresses slowly, the director usually waits until the second year of lessons to study them. Clarinet students typically learn the concert Bb scale in segments going from middle C up to G and from middle C down to A;  in the summer following the first year or early in the second year they study the upper register and learn to play an entire concert B-flat scale, C4 to C5.
    Method books generally wait until the second level to introduce scales. A few scales are presented in the first book, like the split C scale and the F scale for clarinets, which would be concert E flat, that students play in their entirety.

Ideas for Scale Study
    One teacher had beginning students look at a note, state its name, and then play it. This approach seemed to work, and I’ve since tried it with private students. Because most band students have no piano background and don’t know both clefs, I suggest they notate the scales in the clef of their instrument. As students learn each scale, the next step is taking the knowledge of that scale and applying it to some type of an etude in that key.
Another element of music study involves combining scales with different rhythms. One method book includes all types of scales and has several pages of rhythmic combinations for students to play as a test. The editors assumed that if students learned to recognize a rhythm, they would be able to play it whenever it arose, but it doesn’t work that way especially when young musicians are learning two distinct, complex skills at the same time.

High School Rehearsals
    I believe school directors should review a single different scale and chord studies for that scale everyday at the beginning of the rehearsal as part of the warm-up. There are books of chorales in every key and books of etudes in those keys that should be part of the regular warm-up procedure.
    In private lessons I ask students to analyze a rhythmic figure, then apply it to the notes of the scale. Another exercise is for students to play long tones going up the scale so I can check for good tone quality and intonation. Next they tongue each note eight times descending, as fast as possible. Finally they play up and down the scale in groups of four repeated notes, then two repeated notes, and then single notes. This way the tonguing rate stays the same but the fingers move faster with each repetition.
    In private lessons each student plays at a manageable tempo, but with an ensemble the tempo may range from quarter = 100 to 120 for eighth notes, which increases as they gain facility. An inexperienced group may start with eighth notes at quarter = 100 and move up to quarter = 120, the minimum scale tempo for Illinois contests.

No Quick Fixes
    Scale practice is a long-term commitment and may take several years for beginning students to absorb. A group of first-year students will learn three to four scales and add four to five the second year. Certainly by high school students should have learned all the scales. In my experience many educators rely on rote teaching and never work through the basics of learning music with their students, of which scales and rhythms are essential components.
    With scales as only a threshold to good musicianship, rehearsals should move on to sightreading music in the key of the warm-up scale. A book of chorales will develop phrasing and balance and should be included as part of every rehearsal. As students play a chorale I often stop at a certain measure to explain how this should be used as a tuning reference. After playing and explaining the critical points, we play through the entire chorale.
    For a 40-minute rehearsal, the warm-up is generally 10 minutes or 25% of the instructional time. I think many directors do not commit to that type of activity, especially at the beginning of the year because they want to get right into playing music. Unfortunately this sets a program back.

Developing Good Ears
    Intonation problems often get bypassed as directors focus on reading, fingering, and rhythm problems. Because of the inherent intonation problems of each wind instrument, bands often start off poorly with the choice of tuning note. For example, Bb  is not a reliable note on the flute for tuning. If Bb is on the sharp side, the way most students play it, and a director has students pull out, the rest of the flute is out of tune. Having students listen to their playing is the only way to solve this problem within the context of a particular key, then through time inexperienced players realize that each note has a particular tuning tendency.
    Beyond the overall tuning of the band, there are the particular intonation problems of each piece of music. High school students have to work with and learn the scale on which a piece is based. Many scales have inherent intonation problems, and some have awkward fingerings that become the focus of rehearsals instead of intonation.
    The easiest remedy I have found is for the band to play concert F, then ask one student, perhaps a flutist, to play the F scale. As the flutist gets to the third scale degree, you can hear him move the pitch around until he is in tune. He knows where it belongs. Next the student goes up to the fifth scale degree and the same thing happens.

Problematic Half-Steps
    For many years I worked at Niles West with Ted Kaitchuck, a veteran orchestra director who contended that the hardest part of tuning is playing half-steps in scales correctly. Most players and  string players especially play the third step of a scale too close to the fourth or a bit high. This causes many problems and stems from their never having learning that this is a chronic difficulty.
    Some years ago the board of directors of the Illinois Music Educators Association recognized the extent of intonation problems. The organization decided to require that only students who had experience playing in a school orchestra within their district could qualify to play in the all-state orchestra.

Recognizing Intervals
    I believe the easiest way to teach intonation is for students to play familiar songs that begin with a particular interval, such as “Here Comes the Bride” for a perfect fourth. Today directors often rely on technology to solve intonation problems. One director asked each student to bring an electronic tuner to class and place it on the music stand. As students played, the arrow was intended to guide the intonation. This can be a worthwhile exercise, but it is inherently difficult to play notes and watch a needle. The end result is that students don’t learn to listen to their sound and adjust the pitch as needed. It also puts the focus on individual parts and not on how each part fits within the context of the whole, with pitch adjustments made on that basis.
    In music education today too little work is done on teaching aural skills and the relationship between intonation and tone production. Students with good tone are more likely to play in tune. In my experience, an 18-minute warmup of scales, chorales, and sightreading should set the stage for working on a piece.

Analyzing Music, Rhythm
    Several years ago I volunteered to help out at a suburban high school band and had a chance to rehearse the “Aztec Dance” of La Fiesta Mexicana by H. Owen Reed (Belwin/Alfred). As part of my score study, I decided to analyze the music’s rhythmic problems, then give students some capacity to count these rhythms without hearing them. The work is written in 3/4 with sections of it superimposing  6/8. It is similar to “Am­erica” in West Side Story with rhythms that conflict throughout the score. Although some of the rhythms could easily be counted in 6/8 , doing so would produce the feel of an Irish jig instead of a frantic native celebration. If the rhythms are performed in 3/4 meter, students encounter a syncopated feel requiring careful counting.
    On a worksheet I constructed combinations of dotted-eighth, 16th-note figures for the first measure followed by quarter notes in the second measure.

Next I taught students the Com­ponent Counting System devised by Louise Robyn of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, whereby the smallest note value is 1. Thus, for “Aztec Dance,” a 16th note is 1, a dotted eighth is 3, and a quarter note is 4. When students counted the values of the notes, a dotted-eighth, 16th, quarter-note rhythm became One-two-three-One-One-two-three-four with claps on the 1s. Even the worst counter in the group got it. Students played the patterns on a single note and eventually moved on to the steps of scales. Over time they recognized these figures and finally applied them to the music.

    Here are some other rhythmic exercises based on Reed’s music.

A common counting problem arises if teachers  use the 1-e-and-a system to count sixteenth notes. While many high school students understand the system, grade school students are just starting fractions and have difficulty understanding this method.

Auditioning Students
    I believe all students should play a formal audition in the fall, including scales, sightreading, a solo of their choice, and other specified material. My students played behind a screen, and I, together with a student teacher, evaluated their work. Besides being a measure of performance level, the audition taught the importance of self-reliance.

The Transition From Marching Band
    Every year about November 1st when the marching band came off the field, I organized students into small groups and had everyone play in a duet, trio, or quartet until the winter holiday break. We held a Solo and Ensemble Night of performances for the families of the students. I was fortunate that Northwestern University always sent me five to eight student teachers to work with these ensembles. After the winter break full band rehearsals began on a straightforward schedule.
    I found many benefits from these small groups, especially in ensemble balance. It is often difficult for individuals to know where his part fits in if the director never discusses the movement of each voice. With one on a part, each person instantly knows what he is doing, whether it is playing the melody, countermelody, or even an accompaniment figure. He also knows if he is out of tune with the person next to him.
    Balance is important in these groups because if one person doesn’t play his part well everyone hears poorly executed music, but when ensemble members work together, a good student-generated musical discipline develops. It produced groups at Niles West that played at five major national conventions and several area conferences. We worked on programs with Gunther Schuller, John Paynter, and the Contemporary Music Project. While it was gratifying to see these great people work with the band, I learned to take what they had to offer and combine their expertise with my experiences and observations.

Music for Contest
    Many bands go to contest playing music that is too difficult, forgetting that judges evaluate each band on how it plays, not on what it plays. If rehearsal time focuses on difficult parts, then there is little time to develop a piece; its balance and phrasing will be incomplete and show up in performance. More important, if a band initially doesn’t sightread certain passages well and the director goes ahead with the piece anyway, those sections are always disappointing in a contest performance.
    Years ago I was an assistant band director at Niles East working under Leo Provost, who is now in his 90s. Leo preached: “If a band can’t sight-read it, then don’t program it.” I’ve lived by that all my life, and it works. By sightreading, I mean just plow through a new piece and get most of the notes most of the time.
    At Niles West I had pieces that students waited to read every year. They would practice at home, just for their own development and interest, but we never programmed them. John Lockhart Mursel said that if your band plays at the grade 4 level, you should always sightread grade 3 music; they should be able to play it right off. Sight-reading was the chief component in my program that made it work.

The Reality of Our Profession
     Band directors have a difficult job and work within the confines of whatever facilities the school provides. Many schools do not have the staff to give private lessons. Beginners today often have one lesson per week taught from one of the standard class methods, and most directors travel from building to building to instruct students who are pulled out of other classes to participate in the band. There is little time to teach beyond the basic method book material, and in many cases directors lack the expertise to get the most out of students and merely teach by rote.
     Directors who want to develop outstanding ensembles have to take the time to work on the fundamentals of good musicianship to produce communicative, articulate students who understand the elements of music. We need to see more of those students in our bands today.